Obama’s Appointment with History

U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel on 20-21 March is likely to be one of those seminal events which will decide his place in history. He will either seize this unique, and probably final, chance to breathe fresh life into the moribund two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or he will consign Palestinian hopes of statehood to oblivion, and go down in the history books as a wimp who surrendered to narrow and partisan political concerns.
Like no other American President since the foundation of the Jewish state sixty-five years ago, Obama now has it in his power to shape Israel’s future and its relations with its neighbours. Whatever the pressures he is under from Israel’s supporters in the United States -- and they are very great -- the ultimate decision is his and his alone. He is President of the world’s most powerful nation. He has secured re-election for a second four-year term, with all the moral and political authority that that achievement confers on him. Moreover, unlike many of his predecessors, he truly understands what needs to be done in the Middle East, as he demonstrated in his famous Cairo speech of 4 June 2009.
It is worth recalling his words on that occasion:
The situation of the Palestinians is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspirations for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own… The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, when Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest and the world’s interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires.
The time has come to hold Obama to that pledge. He knows that only U.S. power can check and reverse the headlong land-grab of Palestinian territory by messianic Jewish settlers and their right-wing nationalist supporters, which is extinguishing all hope of Palestinian statehood -- and, by the same token, threatening Israel’s future as a democratic state.
Will Obama give a speech at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv? Will he dare tell the Israelis that the U.S.-Israeli special relationship -- on which Israel depends for its very survival -- will be put at risk if the land-grab is not halted and reversed, making way for a Palestinian state?
Whether or not Obama has the courage to speak out -- and translate his words into deeds -- will determine not only war or peace in the region but also whether the United States will be seen as the friend or the enemy of Arabs and Muslims across the world, and all that that implies in terms of American influence, strategic interests, trade opportunities and ultimate security. The United States has already aroused ferocious hostility by its devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as its pitiless drone strikes against alleged terrorists in several countries. But this will be nothing compared to the anger Obama and the United States will arouse if he is seen finally to abandon the Palestinians to their fate.
As well as visiting Israel, Obama will also be calling briefly on Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority at Ramallah and on King Abdallah of Jordan in Amman. But these latter meetings will be of trivial importance compared to his duel with Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose attachment to the dream of a “Greater Israel” no longer needs demonstrating.
Israel has pursued this dream relentlessly for decades -- certainly since the premiership of Menachem Begin, a pre-Independence terrorist leader who fought against Britain’s mandatory government in Palestine. During his crucial term of office as prime minister from 1977 to1983, Begin signed the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, which gave Israel’s unchallenged military supremacy over the Arabs for more than three decades; he bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981; and he invaded Lebanon in 1982 -- killing some 17,000 Palestinians and Lebanese. Israel remained in occupation of southern Lebanon for the next eighteen years, until driven out by Hizballah guerrillas in 2000.
Above all, Begin promoted the construction of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, a systematic land-theft which has continued ever since. Begin’s legacy lives on. Over the past several decades Israel has not hesitated to use great violence against the unfortunate Palestinians -- arresting, torturing and killing them in large numbers, seizing and settling their land, demolishing their houses, stealing their water, and subjecting them to innumerable humiliations and human rights abuses. It has illegally claimed sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem -- thereby ruling out the possibility of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security. Will this pattern of criminal behaviour be halted and or will it continue with impunity?
Obama is visiting Israel at a time when Netanyahu is still likely to be deep in negotiations over the composition of his next government. It will be Obama’s opportunity to influence the choices Netanyahu makes. As their country‘s best -- and perhaps only real -- friend, Obama must remind Israelis that West Bank settlements are illegal under international law, and that if their land-theft and settlement construction continue, Israel must eventually face sanctions, international pressure and isolation -- much like the package of punitive measures which Israel has pushed the United States into imposing on Iran.
What hope is there that Obama will have the courage to tell Israelis that their actions are putting at risk their vital relationship with the United States? Obama’s actions over the past four years give little ground for hope. He has allowed himself to be humiliated by Netanyahu. In a curious way, he seems to have fallen under Israeli control, at least where the Middle East is concerned. As Professor Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics writes in his new book, Obama and the Middle East: “The United States is no longer seen as omnipotent and invincible…” Or again, America’s wars “have diminished America’s power and influence in the Middle East and the international system.” Could it be that Israel has managed to put a stranglehold over America’s decision-making? There is certainly plenty of evidence of that.
Only this week the International Herald Tribune gave pride of place on its opinion page to an incendiary diatribe which seemed to be written by an Israeli propagandist. However, the author was none other than Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser. In the article, he categorically blames Hizballah for the despicable attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria (although no convincing evidence has yet been published), calls on the world to recognise the “nefarious nature” of the Lebanese resistance movement, and demands that the European Union add Hizballah to its terrorist list. Such crass partiality is not worthy of a great power like the United States.
Perhaps, as Fawaz Gerges warns in his book, “We are witnessing the beginning of the end of America’s moment in the Middle East.” Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2013 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global